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The Quilt Index: MSU digital research project shares personal stories

October 3, 2023
<p>Students interact and discuss quilts at the Central Services Building on Oct. 2, 2023. The quilts are typically housed in the <span style="color: rgb(36, 36, 36);">MSU Museum’s Cultural Collections Resource Center.</span></p>

Students interact and discuss quilts at the Central Services Building on Oct. 2, 2023. The quilts are typically housed in the MSU Museum’s Cultural Collections Resource Center.

Quilting has been a part of human history since 13th century England, where it was used mostly as bed coverings. From there, quilting has evolved into a form of art that many use to find excitement, express themselves and spread meaningful messages. 

Michigan State University art, history and design professor Marsha MacDowell is director of The Quilt Index, a digital humanities research and education project of MSU's Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities & Social Services.

The Quilt Index is an open access website that showcases photos and descriptions of over 87,700 quilts submitted by people all over the world.

MacDowell said each quilt is made to reflect the artists' stories and connect to viewers on a deeper level.

"The quilt is tangible to something important in (the artist's) life," MacDowell said. "When receiving a quilt, it makes people feel like they matter.” 


The Quilt Index Associate Director Elizabeth Donaldson has been quilting since high school. She said the art form gives her a sense of satisfaction.

"People who start quilting keep on quilting, because it just captures your imagination for years and years," Donaldson said. "Usually when I make a quilt, I make it for somebody. I have made baby quilts ... and I am even making and donating quilts for people who are going through cancer treatments."


MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine Associate Professor Clare Luz is part of a project within The Quilt Index to raise efforts for AIDS, as well as other diseases and afflictions. Luz said that quilts can not only deliver specific messages, but also be used as a way to help mental health.

In addition to their work on The Quilt Index, MacDowell, Luz and Donaldson wrote the book "Quilts and Health" to explore the relationship between illnesses and textiles. The book includes informational text and pictures of various quilts that relate to different illnesses.


One quilt in the book depicted the struggle of someone with bipolar disorder: the fabric designs showed one girl with two different emotions, anger and sadness, with the background including words describing how people act when they experience mood swings.

"When looking at a quilt like that, made by someone who is bipolar ... you feel it," Luz said. "You can see the struggle between the different moods that they deal with."

Luz said quilts like these "touch people deeply."

"Quilts have the ability to convey pain and feelings that are too deep for words," she said.


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